Image: Worthing, Sussex from Matthew Gilder's Flickr PhotoStream

making sense of the public response to coronavirus (and how to sustain it) in an era of entrenched inequality

Worthing is a Sussex town on the south coast. In the last few weeks, as Coronavirus has swept through our country, bringing with it a level of social disruption not witnessed for generations, we have seen the mobilisation of local groups of residents who have organised together to support the most vulnerable and isolated people in their neighbourhoods. In our mutual aid group in East Worthing, nearly 80 volunteers have delivered essential food and medication to almost 100 local families in under 2 weeks.

This group of local people have set up designated phone lines, organised a daily rota and taken referrals to help people from pharmacies, GP surgeries and the local hospital and we have delivered school food packages to local pupil premium families. Our fundraiser to begin a temporary local foodbank made its target in less than 24 hours and a call put out by the local hospital to ask for donations of folding beds for staff to sleep at the local hospital received 250 emailed offers of donated bedding. Our group have provided well organised and essential community support and care at breakneck speed from a standing start two weeks ago.

What is remarkable about what we’ve achieved is that it’s unremarkable. Mutual aid groups have sprung up the country over as an informal, emergency response to help isolated people to access food and medicine.

Coronavirus, psychology and a common identity

It could be argued that the actions of this sudden mutual aid resurgence flies in the face of the individualising tendencies of modern liberal governance where the retrenchment of the welfare state and years of fiscal austerity have led to financial exclusion, marginalisation and isolation for an increasing number of people. A core feature of the era of austerity economics has been the distinction between a deserving and an undeserving poor whereby those who relied on state support through welfare were routinely demonised as profligate skivers by governments, mainstream media and an entertainment industry content to muddy the social fabric with public suspicion and contempt.

This period of economic austerity was linked to nearly 120,000 excess deaths in England, with the over 60s and care home residents bearing the brunt. The spending restraints were associated with 45,368 excess deaths between 2010 and 2014 and every £10 drop in spend per head on social care was associated with five extra care home deaths per 100,000 of the population.

An uncomfortable question worth asking is how our communities have mobilised to fight the 17,000 deaths (at time of counting 21/04/2020) but passively witnessed 120,000 deaths linked to an economic austerity?

Recent developments in social and community psychology might point the way. If we look a little closer at the impacts of recent disasters throughout history, whether it’s crowd behaviour in emergency evacuations or the response of New Yorkers during and after the September 11th attacks, we see repeated stories of altruism and cooperation, even when people themselves are at great risk.

Psychological research suggests that being in an emergency can create a common identity amongst those affected. Emergencies appear to at least temporarily dissolve social division as the development of this identity facilitates a degree of cooperative altruism even when amongst strangers in life-threatening situations.

The Elaborated Social Identity Model (ESIM) of crowd behaviour developed by Psychologist Stephen Reicher suggests that a common identity emerges among people as a result of a shared fate in the face of illegitimate attacks from an out-group. According to Reicher, it is this common identity that can result in people helping and supporting each other, even if they are complete strangers. It is stating the obvious to note that the Coronavirus is not an ‘out-group’ of people but it functions in a similar way, positioning groups of people as being under attack from a common and indiscriminate enemy.

However, in the UK in recent years, experiences of shared identity have been shorn by the crass identity politics of the Brexit debate and the repeated scapegoating of those on the economic margins of society, be they migrant workers or those on benefits. Indeed, as marked as the era of austerity was by fiscal spending restraint, it was as marked by social division, mistrust and malaise. This country has been riven with uncommonly overt political and cultural divisions that have filtered through to the very core of our day to day relations with people. The conditions for a common identity through which to collectively respond to the public health impacts of austerity were absent.

But during Coronavirus we have seen the mass mobilisation of community solidarity behaviours where the Brexit self-categorisations of division have been displaced by shared, collective self-categorisations of what makes us similar to others. We have the conditions for a common identity that has resulted in communities like ours helping and supporting each other in unprecedented ways and developed the ‘we-ness’ that typically emerges from disasters.

Community psychology and mutual aid

The community response to Coronavirus lends itself to a relational account of wellbeing that foregrounds what Duff calls ‘enabling places’ where wellbeing is not as a set of entities to be acquired as internalised qualities of individuals but instead as a set of effects produced in specific times and places, as situational and relational .

This resonates with the politicized philosophy of wellbeing that lies behind the term mutual aid. Mutual aid finds its conceptual roots in the anarchism propounded by the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He argued against the creeping social darwinism of his time by providing examples of how societies thrive by adhering to the principles of mutually beneficial reciprocity.

This broader notion of what constitutes wellbeing, and the emphasis of social movements cooperating for the common good, leads us to the door of Community Psychology. Community psychology as a discipline is oriented to a values-based approach to wellbeing that focuses on working with those experiencing exclusion to bring about social change. Central to the discipline is the idea that all people, especially those with lived experiences of exclusion, have vital forms of expertise necessary to bring about meaningful change.

To some extent, this stands at odds with the hierarchical and paternalistic approach to care implicit in many professional and statutory services. The principles and practice of mutual aid resonate with community psychology because it is driven by the organisational and care expertise of everyday people living in communities the country over. It’s the very agility and embedded nature of the relations in local communities that make it so responsive and probably more so than professional services whose more rigid protocols and procedures make it more difficult to respond to very different, complex needs at very short notice.

Moreover, it provides a community-building space where people feel that they belong to a group through mutually supportive relationships. Mutual aid groups move from care practices oriented to passive individuals to care practices oriented around solidarity that allow for the amplification of forms of active citizenship that some people are experiencing for the first time in their lives.  The sense of empathy, recognition and practical assistance offered through Mutual aid is an entirely voluntary exchange among equals, and from our group and others I’ve observed, people take great care to avoid setting up a paternalistic or hierarchical relationship between them.

Sustaining mutual aid in the future

The question of whether these new forms of relating are sustainable beyond the current crisis probably depends to a certain degree on how the political, economic and communicative lessons of this crisis are absorbed.

A profoundly unequal society needs accompanying myths to justify and enable the consensus for this inequality. These myths ferment division, blame and scapegoating which wrecks the common identities that have allowed so much progress so quickly.  We know from social psychology that these blaming impulses, so useful to mainstream politicians and media, distort the notion of a common unity and shared fate. In essence, institutionalised inequality demands justification for division and that means constant political labour to break notions of common identity and institute and maintain discursive and symbolic differences in value between groups of people in society. It’s one of the reasons the response to the public health crises of austerity was largely absent.

The suddenness and sheer savagery of the coronavirus was not free from the grasp of inequality- just look at the respective salaries of the shop workers, hospital workers and care workers forced to put themselves at increased risk on a daily basis. However, the divisive forms of communication that typically accompany the politics of inequality and that attenuate the sense of collective identity were absent. Instead there was a meaningful sense of collectiveness and solidarity that allowed a concerted mutual aid response.  Appealing to people’s cooperative and collective identity should be encouraged in public spaces and public discourse on an everyday basis, firstly to make more stark the injustices of inequality but also to increase citizen participation and support our public services in preventing distress and improving citizen participation.

Dissolving into a mass of antagonisms over Brexit evidenced the worst of the British people in 2019. However, the selfless solidarity and sacrifice in the face of a life-threatening national emergency in 2020 showed the very best we are capable of being. Mutual aid has shown us that a ‘public’ public health is possible if we nurture the conditions that support the people who are looking around, seeing a tragedy unfolding before them, and yearning to help their fellow human beings in any way they can.